This is a guest essay written by Linda McKenzie, a long-time Abolitionist advocate.
Mercy for Animals and Cage-Free Duplicity
Mercy For Animals (MFA) is a classic example of welfarist organizations that make a habit of talking out of both sides of their mouths, and of saying one thing while doing another. There is much that could be said, and has been said, by way of criticism of this organization. MFA was one of the groups that joined with Peter Singer in 2005 in signing the infamous and shameful letter to John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, to express their “appreciation and support” for Whole Foods’ supposedly “pioneering” standards of animal exploitation, thus inaugurating the “happy” exploitation movement. According to Mackey, MFA actually helped to create these standards, which allow the consumer to choose the level of animal torture they wish to purchase.
MFA and the other groups involved have been asked in an Open Request to retract their endorsement for “happy” exploitation. To date none have done so, including MFA.
The title alone of this organization, involving “Mercy,” is problematic. As Gary Francione points out, “Our obligations to non-human animals are not a matter of charity or mercy; they are a matter of fundamental justice.”
But in this essay I want to focus on MFA’s position regarding cage-free eggs. MFA condemns cage-free eggs here, here and here as not “cruelty-free,” and not “what you think,” that is, not “humane;” as involving overcrowding, no access to outdoors, painful mutiliations without anesthesia, maceration of live baby male chicks, and violent slaughter of hens when their egg production slows.
How to explain, then, that MFA relentlessly promotes cage-free eggs? Yes, that’s right. They promote cage-free eggs although they acknowledge that cage-free eggs involve all sorts of cruelty. MFA’s blog page, the same one that condemns cage-free eggs, features numerous entries—nineteen in the space of a year—celebrating MFA’s “success” in convincing retail food businesses to “pledge” to adopt a cage-free egg policy, typically to be implemented by 2025-6. This intensive campaign continues, currently targeting food retailers in Brazil.
MFA’s focus on fundraising via welfare reforms means that they have always been in the business of promoting animal exploitation, since welfare reform necessarily promotes animal exploitation. This previously included some focus on welfare reform in the egg industry and support for cage-free campaigns carried out by other groups. But MFA’s corporate cage-free egg campaign kicked off with a vengeance when they accepted a grant from the Open Philanthropy Project (OPP) for $1,000,000 in February 2016. Since then, MFA have accepted a further $1,000,000 from OPP for “International Cage-Free Advocacy,” as well as $1,000,000 to promote “Broiler Chicken Welfare Corporate Campaigns,” and $500,000 for “India Animal Welfare Reform.”
OPP also gave grants to fund cage-free egg campaigns to The Humane League (whose founder, Nick Cooney, is now Director of Education at MFA), The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Compassion in World Farming. All of these are traditional welfarist organizations, with no goal of ever abolishing animal use, but only of supposedly improving the treatment of farmed animals and promoting the continuing consumption of animal products. OPP is itself a blatantly welfarist organization of the same persuasion. MFA’s aligning itself with this lot shows that they have abandoned any pretence to being a “new welfarist” organization that sees abolition of animal exploitation as the ultimate goal that can supposedly be achieved through welfare reform, and are competing for the same donor market as the traditional welfarist groups. It appears that MFA wants to graduate from being “HSUS lite” to being the equivalent of HSUS.
At first, OPP were wary of giving a grant to MFA. They stated that they were initially concerned by the fact that “MFA did not view cage-free egg campaigns as a priority” and by the “negative blog post” (previously cited) that criticised cage-free conditions as not humane. OPP must have missed the December, 2014, MFA e-letter containing a press release from a PR firm on behalf of MFA in which MFA promoted cage-free eggs:
With the enactment of Prop 2, California is leading the way towards a society in which farmed animals are treated with the respect they so rightly deserve,” says Nathan Runkle, president of Mercy For Animals. “As a civilized nation, it is our moral obligation to protect all animals, including animals raised and killed for food, from needless suffering. It’s time for egg producers nationwide to end the cruel and inhumane confinement of hens in wire cages so small they cannot walk, spread their wings, or engage in most natural behaviors.
This cheerleading for cage-free eggs occurred only one and a half months after MFA condemned cage-free eggs in the blog post that worried OPP. In response, Gary Francione criticised Runkle’s statement as a morally repugnant betrayal of animals, pointing out that it’s outrageous to characterise cage-free conditions as amounting to “respect” for the poor birds trapped in them.
As it happened, OPP’s doubts about providing MFA with a grant were assuaged when Runkle reassured them that “MFA’s position on cage-free conditions for egg-laying hens is that they are significantly better than battery cage conditions (though they are not perfect), and that they are an important step in improving hen welfare.” This was a reiteration of his position on cage-free eggs given in a Talk to Google in 2013 (42 minutes, 16 seconds) in which he referred to cage-free eggs as a “business decision.” Runkle stating that MFA “plans to make cage-free egg campaigns a priority” also helped clinch the grant. Indeed, OPP were later to say that, “As a result of this grant, cage-free advocacy has become the primary focus of MFA’s corporate outreach efforts in 2016.”
Runkle clearly did a sterling job of convincing OPP that MFA is fully committed to selling out animals in return for a hefty grant, and that any former objections to exploiting chickens for cage-free eggs could be safely disregarded. To say that cage-free conditions are “not perfect” beggars belief for its hideous misrepresentation of the misery that these conditions constitute for chickens. “Significantly better” means that the birds are still tortured, perhaps slightly less, and still meet the same premature and violent death in a horrifying slaughterhouse, with the built-in prospect of being boiled alive. This is what Runkle demonstrated his alacrity to promote, making MFA a partner with the egg industry. With friends like this, the animals do not need enemies, willing to trade away their interests in exchange for money.
For their part, OPP obviously judge that MFA have made good on their commitment such that they are now funding them to the tune of $1,000,000, for openers at least, to promote “higher welfare,” that is, supposedly more humanely raised chicken meat. Runkle and his colleagues are being richly rewarded for their willingness to betray animals.
One thing is clear: corporate welfarist groups like MFA are not only in partnership with commercial animal exploiters; they are commercial animal exploiters. They are the sector of the animal exploitation industry that helps legitimise it to the public. They reassure us that we can continue exploiting with a clear conscience. Just switch to cage-free eggs and you’re doing fine by animals. Give yourself a big pat on the back for being a “compassionate” consumer.
MFA’s regular self-congratulations on the “success” of their cage-free egg campaign typically conclude with some version of, “Of course, the best way to help animals is to leave eggs off your plate” whereupon readers are directed to a “Vegetarian (note: not “Vegan”) Starter Guide” which predictably promotes the standard welfarist baby steps, “vegetarian,” “meatless,” “cut out the worst suffering,” “plant-based before 6 PM,” reducetarian, flexitarian, excusitarian approach. Bizarrely, but completely consistently, the Guide highlights non-vegan celebrities as being the “good company” that readers are in and presumably ought to emulate. Even MFA’s statements explicitly encouraging veganism link to this decidedly non-vegan Guide.
Moreover, characterising not eating eggs (or other animal products) as “best” is tantamount to saying that other measures are also good and worthwhile. So eating eggs, as long as they are cage-free, is a good and praiseworthy thing to do. That is, knowingly and needlessly inflicting all of the horrors inherent in cage-free eggs, to which MFA claim to object, is something that, in practice, MFA positively endorses. There is simply no other way to interpret these statements, coupled with MFA’s actions. No amount of vegan recipes on their Facebook page changes this one iota.
MFA has an entire web page trying—and failing—to justify why the organization refuses to consistently use what it calls “the V word,” as though saying “vegan” is akin to using a swear word. They cite pseudoscience in a spurious attempt to back up this abdication of responsibility to communicate a clear vegan message. Executive director, Nathan Runkle, proclaims himself a “vegetarian,” not a vegan. Here’s Runkle trashing veganism and making it crystal clear that he does not regard it as a moral imperative (at 44 minutes, 30 seconds):
Q: Is even non-factory farming ethical since the animals are still killed?
You know, I don’t think that the world or life is ever in black-and-white terms…Now, we certainly think that a vegan diet is, in most situations, the most ethical, compassionate, environmentally friendly choice that we can make, so, of course, we hold that as the gold standard. But, we understand that there are gradations along the lines of agriculture…So, we think people need to know what the choices are…Do I think that we should be killing the cow rather than eating carrots? Probably carrots would be a better choice, for me, ethically. You know, if I don’t have to take a life and be violent, probably wouldn’t. But there are people who just don’t share that belief…
“In most situations”? “Probably”? The speciesism here is astonishing. The abuse of the word, “ethical,” is monumental. Veganism is not a matter of “compassion.” It’s a matter of fundamental justice. It’s a moral obligation, not an optional lifestyle “choice.”
Earlier in the same talk, at 34 minutes, 40 seconds: “So by making some dietary changes, by eliminating meat on Mondays, by reducing our meat consumption, becoming a flexitarian or becoming a full-blown vegan we can help spare animals this suffering.”
Here Runkle explicitly gives his stamp of approval to the continuing consumption of animal products and engages in dishonesty about how this helps “spare animals this suffering.” And there is no such thing as a “full-blown vegan.” You are either a vegan or you are not. You are either vegan or you are engaging in animal exploitation. There is no third option.
Here is a clip of Runkle’s talk where he rejects veganism as a moral imperative:
Leaving aside the fact that MFA rejects veganism as a moral imperative, why are they expending a huge amount of resources on promoting what is, by their own definition, not best for animals, and what they admit involves torture and death for animals? The answer is clear: welfare reforms are an endless source of fundraising dollars. Each new “pledge” to adopt whatever token measure MFA is proposing by some far off date in the future—if it happens at all—is cause for shouts of “Victory!,” “Success!” and “Progress!” This is used to justify yet more calls for donations from the public to ensure more “success” and attracts large grants from OPP and other large donors. Welfare reforms allow this cycle to continue indefinitely—it’s a never-ending non-vegan gravy train. As a business model, it’s very successful. Some would even call it a brilliant scam. It’s just a pity about the poor animals who get sold out, every time.
If we consider the massive resources in money, time and energy poured into convincing food companies to engage in “happy” (actually brutal) exploitation of birds for their eggs—including staff salaries, undercover investigations, petitions, leafleting, advertisements, blog posts, Facebook posts, mass letter-writing to companies, demonstrations, as well as all the advising of, and schmoozing with, decision-makers in animal exploitation companies—we get an idea of what a tragic lost opportunity this represents for bringing about justice for animals. Imagine what could be achieved if all of this was devoted to abolitionist vegan education, the only thing that can lead to the abolition of animal exploitation.
So there we have it. MFA say that cage-free eggs are “not cruelty-free;” not “humane.” But MFA is paid millions of dollars to promote cage-free eggs. In aggressively promoting cage-free eggs they promote all of the suffering and death they claim to condemn. This they grotesquely call “success,” “progress,” a “victory” and “good news” for animals. While pumping out this “happy” exploitation propaganda, there are statements currently standing on MFA’s websites against cage-free eggs. While claiming not to support cage-free eggs, MFA are prioritising the promotion of cage-free eggs.
It is, truly, an “animal confusion” movement.
It‘s absolutely clear that if you support MFA, or other groups like them, you’re contributing to animal exploitation. You’re paying them to disseminate the obscenity of “happy” exploitation. All that MFA are doing with their cage-free egg campaign is to encourage people to feel good about consuming eggs while continuing to inflict gratuitous torture and brutal death on innocent, vulnerable beings.
MFA, and the other groups like MFA, claim to be opposed to animal exploitation but they actually promote animal exploitation. They make the excuse that they can’t take a firm moral position because they don’t want to tell people what to do. But if we are engaged in a social justice movement then we must take a position against the violations of fundamental rights. We have a moral duty to the victims to insist that these violations should stop. We must argue for the end of all animal use, and that requires promoting veganism unequivocally as the moral baseline. We should be promoting the abolition of slavery; we should not be promoting that slave owners beat their slaves more gently and declaring “victory” when the slave-owners agree. Until we get clear on this, the mainstream “animal movement” will continue to be a massive failure.
MFA is just one example—albeit a glaring one—of the way that corporate animal charities talk out of both sides of their mouths. Apparently, they’re hoping we wont notice the duplicity and keep on donating.
If you care about animals, if you think they matter morally and are not just things, then veganism is a moral imperative. Learn more about veganism here.
©2017 by Linda McKenzie